Chinese Farmers Plant a Seed for a Chemical Free Future

farmer apple
Dang Jiuru smiles as he collects an apple from his orchard in Luochuan County, shaanxi Province. Each one he sells is a step towards his grandson's education. (Photo: Luo Yi)

Seventy year-old Dang Jiuru always dreamed of sending his grandson to university, but until recently his lifelong ambition seemed destined to remain unfulfilled. His apple orchard in Luochuan County, Shaanxi Province, simply didn't make enough money. But just two years since he took the bold step of abandoning toxic DDT pesticides, his grandson's university fund is growing as fast as his apples.

Average altitudes of 1,100 metres and deep mineral rich soils make conditions along this part of the Loess Plateau perfect for growing nutritious fruit. For Dang, and most of the farmers he knew, chemicals offered protected his fruit from the large numbers of leaf mites that thrive in the region's semi-arid monsoon climate. In his mind, without these chemicals his fruit could not survive the summer.

"If you asked me to stop using chemicals a few years ago, I would have smiled and carried on spraying my trees," explains Dang. "I thought I could not afford to stop using pesticides and that they were the only way to safeguard an income, but it turns out they were actually limiting it."

With the ability to destroy mite colonies in a matter of weeks, pesticides like dicofol offered farmers a cheap, effective and quick solution to the problem. What Dang didn't know, was that those same pesticides that he thought were securing him just enough income to support his family, were the very reason his apples never sold for more than 2 yuan (US$0.3) per kilogramme. International treaties like the Stockholm Convention that aim to control the use of DDT, and strict health and safety standards in other countries, meant that more profitable overseas markets were not an option while he continued to use DDT pesticides. Even if he could access these markets, the poor quality apple he could produce by himself was no match for superior foreign brands.

Now, with the establishment of 3 demonstration projects and regular training schools in Shaanxi, Hubei and Shandong provinces, Dang is one of 100,000 farmers in three provinces that are being trained each year to adapt their farming techniques to international conventions and trading standards. Set up by UNDP and the China Ministry of Environmental Protection with the help of local and international experts, this joint four-year project, was funded by the Global Environment Facility and has helped farmers to remove their dependence on 'persistent organic pollutants' altogether – chemicals like dicofol that remain in food and water systems for prolonged periods of time and which have been linked to serious health complications.

Highlights

  • 100,000 farmers in three provinces are being trained each year to adapt their farming techniques to international conventions and trading standards
  • Annual incomes have increased by as much as 12 percent and production has reached 700,000 tonnes.

Many of the new IPM (Integrated Pest Management) techniques on offer are simple, and include cultivating grass at the base of the trees to provide a habitat for natural mite predators. Installing stand-alone insecticide lamps to catch other bugs and insects before they reach the trees has also proven effective. Other techniques involved more complex scientific technologies in which UNDP-led experts were able to provide biological guidance on the safe introduction of new predatory mite species into local ecosystems.

Despite the significant investment in time and management required under this new approach, interest in the hands-on chemical management and agricultural expertise on offer has spread quickly among locals in Luochuan. Many farmers have already graduated and become trainers themselves under a system where trainers are assigned 3 students of their own. The multiplying nature of this manageable learning system has seen thousands of citrus and cotton producers in Hubei and Shandong provinces enjoy similar success, as they too turn their backs on DDT-based pesticides in favour of healthier and more sustainable farming practices.

By encouraging farmers to record the effectiveness of their new cultivation methods in log-books, communities have been able to monitor the quality of their produce and take measures to avoid issues before they emerge. Their experiences have also been documented and shared, while pest monitoring and forecasting centres, and a pesticide residue testing station set up under the project have provided guidance in compliance with international food standards.

In line with the conditions of China's compliance with the Stockholm Convention, which allows for the production of dicofol in closed systems, the project has helped a production plant in Jiangsu Province to optimise its systems. Working with local government, the project helped shut down open dicofol production lines at two factories in Hubei and Shandong. Annual reductions of 180 metric tonnes in DDT emissions and 350 metric tonnes of DDT contaminated waste released during dicofol production have also been achieved.

Together with the new skills being used in Luochuan's 300 square kilometres of apple orchards, reduced dicofol use has seen annual apple production reach 700,000 tonnes – equivalent to 3.5 tonnes for each of the 200,000 people in the county. Better quality apples now sell for 6 yuan (US$0.9) per kilogramme and plans are underway to diversify their use. So, whether this project is seen as a US$30 per capita investment in China's agricultural future or a safeguard for human health and the global environment, it's returns have been impressive.

As for Dang, having become a trainer himself, he is busy making preparations to join the growing number of farmers that are selling their apples to markets in Europe. And with a good harvest offering his family the chance to pocket 12 percent more per hectare than it did last year and invest in his grandson's education, who could blame him.